• Andrew Johnston

The Chilling Effect of De Facto Censorship

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

One of the things I do here is write about censorship. I didn't plan on that, but when the government locks the internet down for six weeks, it's a natural topic. Today (or maybe yesterday when accounting for time zone vagaries), people back home were talking about it as well. And when I say "people," I mean "people who spend at least six hours a day on Twitter," which is one of the the only groups that the American press acknowledges, along with white guys in small town diners.

The furor in this case concerned an open letter in Harper's Magazine signed by a who's who of media and literary figures, decrying what they argue is an increasing level of restraint on freedom of expression. I won't go into the list of names here. For one, everyone else has done that already - many of the critics of this letter have demonstrated a fine commitment to the genetic fallacy by picking through the names to find people they don't like and using that as an excuse to dismiss the whole thing.

My take is that there's only one name on that list that really matters, and that's Salman Rushdie. Not that you just take his (or anyone else's) word for it, which is just a different fallacy (the appeal to authority). On the other hand, when a man who was once marked for death because of something he wrote tells you that he has concerns about freedom of speech, maybe it's not such a bad idea to turn down the volume on the snark and take a minute for quiet self-reflection.

Tell you what, though - let's ignore the names for now. They're not important.

My own opinions on free speech and civil discourse in American society are nuanced but not necessarily complex. In lieu of giving you a novella-length exegesis, I'll just run down a quick list of what is and is not important to me:

  • If your YouTube videos were demonetized, I don't care.

  • If your Twitter account was banned, I don't care.

  • If you lost a five-figure speaking gig because the audience was upset, I don't care.

  • If you lost your job because of your opinion, I care a lot.

  • If a work of art in any medium becomes unavailable due to controversy, I care a lot.

We could parse all of this out. I could go into detail about what does and does not constitute an abuse of power in my opinion, the importance of accepting illiberal thought in liberal society, the obligations organizations hold to their audiences in general and academic settings, the historical precedent (including within the US) for the annihilation of unacceptable ideas...but I'll spare you.

One of the more rational attempts at an argument against the ideas in this letter is that it doesn't count as censorship - and thus, is something we shouldn't worry about at all - because it's not coming from the government. There are a few problems with this. First, the authors of the letter never said that it was, nor did they ever call on the government to do anything. It's directed more towards literary and journalistic communities. To wit:

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us. (Emphasis added)

It's possible that these critics may not have read the actual letter, instead basing their opinions on a synopsis of a synopsis. A problem with blogs is that no one seems to want to click on links, so even when a direct source is available, we're willing to act like it's 1992 and we all have to squint at a third-generation Xerox copy to figure out what's up. And if the length is a problem...the whole letter is barely 500 words, shorter than most of the flash fiction pieces I've been pulling quotes from for my series. Perhaps Twitter is the best place for these people.

The follow-up to this argument is usually something to the effect that the government shouldn't be in the business of "protecting people from the consequences of their actions." You see variants of this phrase bandied about a lot, and I utterly despise it. Unlike these bloggers - unlike just about everyone in the United States, as far can tell - I remember was 2002 was like.

I come from a small, rural Midwestern town with a homogeneous population rife with connections to creationist groups. Needless to say, I held many beliefs that did not ingratiate me to the locals, but it didn't matter in high school until 9/11 turned everyone into a patriot. Suddenly, I was well aware of the "consequences of my actions," which could include a beatdown. I learned this second-hand after a student drew a cartoon in the school paper that others found offensive, culminating in three of them cornering him and demanding he explain himself. Thankfully, I never had any first-hand experience, mostly because I learned to keep my mouth shut.

While this was going on, I was reading a lot of news stories (many of them from the same bloggers who are now very blase about all of this) about other people in very different places dealing with the consequences of holding unpopular opinions. One that stood out for me was a story about a graduate student who was receiving death threats and being physically confronted outside of his apartment, and was even facing eviction from his school-provided housing.

By the above standards, this isn't a problem worth worrying about. After all, the government was not involved in this incident, or in any similar incident, or in what my friends and I went through in high school. We were all just a bunch of whiners unwilling to deal with the "consequences of our actions." This is the take now; it was not the take then. Back then, the people on my side saw this as the slide of society into something intolerant and brutish, and you saw a lot of commentaries on the tyranny of the majority and the chilling effect of even de facto censorship not actually imposed by government edict. Sadly, that kind of nuance is years in the grave.

The explanation for this is nothing you couldn't have guessed - few people have a genuine philosophical commitment to things like free discourse, finding such a commitment when they feel they've been targeted and then losing it when the target is someone they don't like.

Every day in the US, some moral scold (usually the kind of religious zealot that none of us like) tries to get a book yanked from a public or school library or struck from a reading list. Honestly, the main reason I read David K. Shipler's The Working Poor was out of spite because I read in another book that some "think of the children" types in a town like mine had tried to ban it. When we hear a story like this, we tend not to split hairs over whether or not it's technically "censorship" because it doesn't stem from government action. It's just wrong, and if it happens a lot, we get worried - not because of the government, but because it suggests society is moving in a dark direction.

I consider myself a believer in free expression, and that means defending expression against attempts to stifle it - whether that's government censorship, de facto censorship from powerful private gatekeepers, or some variant on the heckler's veto. If you hold the same position, you're under no obligation to defend every asshole who comes your way - but if you spend all of your time thinking up excuses why you never have to to defend ideas that you don't like because it's not "actual" censorship, then you might not be an "actual" defender of free expression.

And while you're pondering that, give a moment's thought as to what it means that you're on the other side from Salman Rushdie on an issue of literary freedom. Just sayin'.

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